The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art form the Smithsonian Institution’s national museums of Asian art in the United States. The Freer and Sackler galleries house the largest Asian art research library in the country. Founded in 1982, the Gallery is named after Arthur M. Sackler, who donated approximately 1,000 objects and $4 million to the building of the museum. Located on the south side of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and being physically connected to the Freer Gallery of Art, 96% of the museum is located underground underneath the Enid A. Haupt Garden.
In 1987, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery opened on the National Mall to become Smithsonian’s second museum of Asian art. The museum was built with funds provided by Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, who established the inaugural collection with a gift of one thousand objects. His renowned collection included incomparable examples of Chinese jades and bronzes, among other important works.
In addition to Dr. Sackler, the principal benefactor of the museum that bears his name, the governments of Japan and South Korea contributed to the construction of the building to promote their countries’ artistic and historical achievements. Architect Jean-Paul Carlhian designed the building (and the National Museum of African Art) on three underground levels, with a dramatic pavilion entryway through the Haupt Garden.
As Smithsonian museums, the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery hold in trust the nation’s extraordinary collections of Asian art and of American art of the late nineteenth-century aesthetic movement.
Our mission is to encourage enjoyment and understanding of the arts of Asia and the cultures that produced them. We use works of art to inspire study and provoke thought.
Arthur M. Sackler
Dr. Arthur M. Sackler was a physician and medical publisher. Born and educated in New York, Dr. Sackler devoted his professional career to the advancement of medicine. His other passion was collecting exemplary objects from Asia, which evolved into the collection that forms the foundation of the museum’s holdings.
“One wonderful day in 1950 I came upon some Chinese ceramics and Ming furniture. My life has not been the same since.”
“Great art, great science, and the true humanities are great because they all ‘speak’ the truth,” Dr. Sackler once commented. “No great art, or science, no music or poetry or performance can achieve true greatness without integrity.”
In addition to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, Dr. Sackler endowed galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at Princeton University, as well as a museum at Harvard University. After his death, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology opened at Peking University in Beijing.
Japanese Prime Minister Masayoshi Ōhira visited the Freer Gallery of Art in 1979. During his visit, he announced that Japan would donate $1 million to the Smithsonian in order to assist in the building of an annex to the Freer to display Asian art. That same year, the United States Senate approved the Smithsonian Institution’s request for $500,000 to build museums for Asian and African art on June 6. In June, 1980, the Smithsonian removed the South Quadrangle Project from their fiscal plan. The project resurfaced in 1981, and on December 23 Congress approved $960,000 for the new complex. It was the first time that federal funds were contributed to a project as unrestricted.
In 1982, Arthur M. Sackler donated around 1,000 Asian artworks and objects to the Smithsonian Institution. The collection was valued at $50 million. Along with the object donation, Sackler also provided $4 million to build a facility to house the objects, thus founding the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The quadrangle construction began on June 22, 1982. An additional $36.5 million was appropriated to continue the project in October. Groundbreaking took place on June 21, 1983 with participation by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, then Vice President George H. W. Bush and Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley. On February 21, 1984, Milo C. Beach was declared scholarly director of the Sackler Gallery.
The gallery opened on September 28, 1987. Arthur Sackler died four months before the opening. In honor of the quadrangle complex’s opening, Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry declared the day “Smithsonian Institution Day.” Starting in October, Milo C. Beach served as acting director of both the Sackler and the Freer. In November 1988, he became director of both.
In March 2002, scholar in Islamic art Julian Raby was appointed director of the combined galleries. In 2006, J. Keith Wilson became the assistant director and curator of Chinese art.
In January, 2012, the Sackler celebrated the 30th anniversary of its founding with a gift of $5 million from Sackler’s widow.
The Gallery is located in the Quadrangle Complex behind the Smithsonian Institution Castle. It shares the complex with the National Museum of African Art and the S. Dillon Ripley Center. The complex, which is 96% underground and covers 115,000 square feet, was designed by Jean Paul Carlhian, with the goal of connecting various underground buildings. Geometric forms, influenced by the Smithsonian Castle, the Arts and Industries Building and the Freer Gallery of Art, were used in the design, as was pink and gray granite representative of the color of those buildings. The Sackler Gallery is next to the Freer Gallery of Art. It is decorated with designs inspired by Islamic art. A 4,130 square foot granite pavilion was built in the Enid A. Haupt Victorian Garden to serve as an entrance to the facility. A fountain, shaped like a diamond, is located on the third and lowest floor, which can be viewed from the two upper levels. Construction of a tunnel between the Freer and Sackler was begun in early 1987 and completed in 1989. The sections of the Gallery open to the public cover 40,905 square feet.
Aside from Sackler’s original donation of objects, the Gallery also holds other collections. General holdings at the Gallery include Chinese, Indian, Korean and Japanese paintings, photography, contemporary ceramics from China, 19th- and 20th-century Japanese prints, contemporary Japanese pottery, and other related Asian arts.
Charles Lang Freer, a Detroit businessman, began collecting works by living American artists in the 1880s. In 1890, he met James McNeill Whistler, whose style had been influenced by Japanese prints and Chinese ceramics. Following the artist’s advice, Freer began acquiring Asian art, amassing a fine array of both American and Asian works that ultimately would form the Freer Gallery of Art. The American collection features an unparalleled selection of Whistler’s work, including the famous Peacock Room. Freer also gathered significant holdings by Dwight Tryon, Thomas Dewing, Abbott Thayer, and such Gilded Age artists as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Willard Metcalf, and Childe Hassam.
Ancient Egyptian Art
A standing figure of Horus, the falcon-headed Egyptian sky god, and his painted wooden shrine are among the highlights of our ancient Egyptian artworks. Charles Lang Freer took three trips to Egypt between 1906 and 1910, initiating a collection that now includes more than one thousand objects dating to as early as 2500 BCE. The image of Horus and his shrine are from the Ptolemaic Dynasty (ca. 305–30 BCE), as is a pair of stone falcons, probably from a temple near Alexandria. The museums also hold a world-famous collection of glass vessels produced during Dynasty 18 (ca. 1539–1295 BCE) and a group of amulets depicting gods, goddesses, and sacred animals.
Ancient Near East
The ancient Near East, a region extending from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea to present-day Afghanistan, was home to several of the world’s oldest civilizations. Favored with an abundance of natural resources, the people of this region developed metalworking and pottery making to a level of sophistication unknown elsewhere at the time. Today, few museums of Asian art boast collections of Near Eastern art as rich as those of the Freer and Sackler. More than 1,100 objects span from 5000 BCE to the advent of Islam in 651. Highlights include ancient Iranian ceramics, one of the finest holdings of Achaemenid and Sasanian silver vessels in the West, and more than two hundred seals.
Arts of the Islamic World
The phrases “arts of the Islamic World” and “Islamic art” refer to a variety of artistic traditions that have flourished in a vast geographic region—from southern Spain and North Africa to the islands of Southeast Asia since the advent of Islam in the late seventh century. While different cities and regions developed their own distinct secular and religious visual language, they also share certain formal and aesthetic concerns. The Freer and Sackler together hold one of the country’s finest collections of the arts of the Islamic world, with particular strengths in illustrated manuscripts and ceramics among the more than 2,200 objects.
Biblical Manuscripts Art
During his first visit to Egypt in 1906, Charles Lang Freer was offered a small group of biblical manuscripts. Despite knowing little of their significance, he made the purchase. Freer’s instincts were good: he had purchased one of the world’s oldest Greek parchment manuscripts of the Gospels. In subsequent years, Freer obtained additional manuscripts from Egypt. The texts are written in Greek and Coptic, the Egyptian language used after the third century, on parchment or papyrus. They are in codex form, with folded sheets forming leaves like a modern book. Together, these works comprise one of the most important collections of biblical manuscripts outside Europe. The collections also includes a small but choice selection of medieval Armenian gospels.
With more than thirteen thousand objects dating from Neolithic times (ca. 7000–ca. 2000 BCE) to the present, the Freer and Sackler boast among the finest museum collections of Chinese art. In addition to containing numerous masterworks, the collections powerfully reflect all major dynastic periods and materials of artistic production. Uncommon concentrations of special categories include artifacts acquired with the Singer collection, imperial and trade ceramics, lacquer, traditional paintings, portraits, and calligraphy. And our remarkable ancient jades and bronzes are among the greatest treasures of Chinese art outside China.
Sackler Contemporary Art
The Contemporary Asian Art Program at the Freer|Sackler encourages new and provocative ways of thinking about Asian art and culture today.
Whether drawing upon traditional Asian aesthetic and cultural traditions or new media concepts and practices, many Asian artists are playing a critical role in redefining our understanding of Asia and the development of global contemporary art. Since the 1990s, groundbreaking exhibitions and programs of modern and contemporary Asian art at the Sackler have featured works in a range of media by such artists as Isamu Noguchi, Xu Bing, Raghubir Singh, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Fiona Tan, Yayoi Kusama, Do-Ho Suh, Y.Z. Kami, Jananne Al-Ani, Anish Kapoor, and Ai Weiwei, among many others.
From his first Asian art purchase—a painted Japanese fan—Charles Lang Freer was inspired by the beauty of Japanese paintings and ceramics and of Buddhist paintings, metalwork, and sculpture. More than two thousand Japanese works were included in his gift to the nation. From this foundation, the Freer Gallery’s collection has grown in size and scope to include calligraphy, lacquer, prints, and printed books. Japanese art in the Sackler Gallery has focused on graphic arts, ceramics, lacquers, and photographs, including modern and contemporary works. In total, the Freer and Sackler’s Japanese art collections comprise more than twelve thousand objects spanning four millennia.
The simple forms, spare decoration, and monochrome glazes of Joseon period (1392–1910) teabowls first attracted Charles Lang Freer to Korean ceramics. He expanded his collection to include Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) celadons, which had once adorned palaces, Buddhist temples, and private residences of the aristocracy. The same aristocratic patrons commissioned exquisite Buddhist paintings, such as the three rare examples now held by the museum.
During the last twenty years of his life, Freer acquired nearly 500 Korean art objects, including approximately 130 Goryeo and 80 Joseon ceramic pieces. When the Freer Gallery of Art opened its doors in 1923, Freer’s assembly of Korean art was considered unparalleled in quality and historical scope.
South Asian and Himalayan Art
The arts of South Asia and the Himalayas are closely intertwined with the subcontinent’s many religious traditions. This region, which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet, is the birthplace of three major religions: Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. The Islamic kingdoms that were established in South Asia in the twelfth century brought new visual traditions to the subcontinent. With more than 1,200 objects, the museums’ South Asian and Himalayan collections illuminate these richly diverse sacred traditions as well as the secular arts of the Mughal and Rajput courts.
Southeast Asian Art
During his lifetime, Charles Lang Freer acquired just a handful of objects from Southeast Asia. Today, the Freer|Sackler’s Southeast Asian art collections comprise close to nine hundred objects, thanks largely to the contributions of Ann and Gilbert H. Kinney, Arthur M. Sackler, and other donors. Together, these objects represent the region’s rich material culture of Buddhist and Hindu sculpture in stone and bronze, and ritual and secular objects in bronze and terra-cotta. The Hauge Collection of Ceramics from Mainland Southeast Asia reflects vibrant local pottery traditions and trade networks from prehistory to the present, and the Freer Study Collection houses more than three thousand sherds.
The Department of Conservation and Scientific Research for both the Freer and Sackler Galleries was established as the first Smithsonian facility devoted to the use of scientific methods for the study of works of art and remains one of the few facilities in the United States that specializes in the conservation of Asian paintings.
Care of the collections began before the museums came into existence as Charles Lang Freer, the founder of the Freer Gallery of Art, hired Japanese painting restorers to care for his works and to prepare them for their eventual home as part of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1932, the Freer Gallery of Art hired a full-time Japanese restorer and established the East Asian Painting Conservation Studio. The Technical Laboratory, and the first use of scientific methods for the study of art at the Smithsonian Institution, started in 1951 when the chemist Rutherford J. Gettens moved from the Fogg Museum at Harvard University to the Freer. The East Asian Painting Conservation Studio and the Technical Laboratory merged in 1990 to form the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research.
Among the conservation projects that the Sackler Gallery has undertaken was a 2009 project where conservators used laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to explore the “fingerprints” of ancient Chinese gold objects from the Gallery.
The Sackler has hosted a variety of celebrations and ongoing events revolving around Asian art and culture. In 1989, the Gallery hosted its first series of events, a two-month-long celebration of Persian art and culture sponsored in collaboration with the Foundation for Iranian Studies. Musician Dariush Dolat-shahi performed and workshops, lectures and other performances took place. Events often coincide with the theme of exhibitions. In 2011, Azar Nafisi and Dick Davis discussed the role of women in the Shahnameh in conjunction with an exhibition on the 1,000-year-old Persian poem.
Together, alongside the Freer and the Metropolitan Center for Far Eastern Studies of Kyoto, the Sackler created the Shimada Prize. The biannual $10,000 prize awards scholars of East Asian art. In 2011, the Sackler and the Freer received a major gift from donor Jahangir Amuzegar. The gift created two endowments, one for a yearly celebration of the Persian holiday of Nowruz and another to build a collection of and celebrate contemporary Iranian art. It was the largest Persian focused gift to be given to the Sackler and Freer and one of the largest Asian art donations ever given to the Smithsonian.